ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — A day that began with such hope for Buffalo Bills fans, a game that opened with the introduction of new owners Terry and Kim Pegula, who have vowed to keep the team in this city, ended the way so many others have against the Patriots in recent years: with a loss.
The Patriots spoiled the Buffalo Pegula Party Sunday with a 37-22 win, a victory that gave the Patriots sole possession of first place in the AFC East.
But after the game, the tiny visitors’ locker room at Ralph Wilson Stadium was not as jubilant as one would expect. The joy of winning was tempered by serious injuries to three of the Patriots’ starters, Jerod Mayo, Stevan Ridley, and Dan Connolly.
Mayo was carted off the field in the second quarter, after his right knee appeared to buckle while attempting to tackle running back Boobie Dixon. Ridley (knee) was helped off the field in the third quarter, after landing awkwardly while trying to avoid a tackler on a run. Connolly (head) left the field in the first half, but it is unknown when exactly he was hurt.
There was no word on the severity of injury for any of the players, but teammates sounded an ominous tone.
“It’s tragic,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said when asked about Mayo, who in the sixth game of last season suffered a torn pectoral that put him on injured reserve. “We’ve got a lot of respect for Jerod and what he’s done for this organization.”
Coach Bill Belichick gave another indication of the regard he holds Mayo in when he referenced only his injury in his opening postgame comments, calling the win “a little bittersweet” after the linebacker was hurt.
A few of the Patriots defensive players said they vowed to Mayo that they would win the game for him.
If the Patriots have lost their leading tackler, leading rusher, and/or arguably their best offensive lineman for any significant length of time, it certainly makes things difficult, particularly in the short term, with the hated Jets headed to Gillette Stadium for a Thursday night game.
“We’re going to have to turn around quick,” Belichick said. “We obviously have a lot of catching up to do between now and Thursday night. It’s always hard to play the Jets; they’re a game-planning team, they always have a lot of tough packages and a lot of good players. But we’ll just have to turn it around quickly and get back to Foxborough and start grinding it out.”
On Sunday, the offense got a major boost from the defense in the first half, and then was stellar in the second half.
The defense had three turnovers in the opening 30 minutes, on an interception from Jamie Collins, a strip-sack from Chandler Jones, and a forced fumble by Devin McCourty that was recovered by rookie Zach Moore.
Quarterback Tom Brady and the offense turned the gifts into 13 points.
“I made a bad decision with the football on the interception,” Bills quarterback Kyle Orton said, a middle-of-the-field pass intended for Marquise Goodwin that Collins broke on and claimed as his own. “Then the sack-fumble, and then trying to basically run out the clock at the end of the half and an unfortunate fumble. We have to address those, I have to be better with the football and play a mistake-free game and not come away with any interceptions.”
After going 3 for 10 on third down in the first half, with Brady completing 12 of 20 passes for 87 yards, the offense came out in the second half and looked like a different unit.
Brady was nearly perfect, completing 15 of 17 passes for 274 yards, and the team converted on four of five third-down opportunities. All told, Brady had his best statistical performance of the season, completing 73 percent of his passes for 361 yards and four touchdowns. He’s now 23-2 all-time against the Bills.
“You have to give credit to the whole offense,” Belichick said. “I thought we did a decent job of giving [Brady] time. The receivers made some good plays, Tom made some good reads, and made some good throws, but it took everybody out there working together today. It’s not a one-man band.”
The Patriots got the ball to start the second half, and quickly increased their lead from 6 to 13 points after a beautiful 43-yard catch from Brian Tyms.
Tyms, playing a regular-season Patriots game for the first time after sitting out the first four games because of an NFL suspension, had good coverage from corner Stephon Gilmore, but made the leaping catch, grabbing the ball and hanging on as he tumbled to the turf.
“Gilmore is really good. I knew regardless of if I ran past him, I knew he had makeup speed, so I had to attack the ball,” Tyms said.
“That’s just my M.O. – I always try to attack the ball. I don’t like to let the ball come to me. There are a lot of good players in this league that can make a play; I wanted the ball more.
“I’m not going to run 40 yards without the ball.”
The Patriots increased their lead to 30-14 after the first of Brandon LaFell’s two touchdowns, but Buffalo made things interesting with a touchdown and 2-point conversion with just under six minutes to play, cutting New England’s lead to 30-22.
LaFell’s second touchdown, however, ended any hope of a comeback.
Despite a penalty on the kickoff return that led to the offense starting at its 6, and two false-start penalties during the possession, Brady kept the drive alive with a 17-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski on third and 16.
Two plays later, Brady hit LaFell, who stiff-armed cornerback Leodis McKelvin, tip-toed on the sideline, and took the final few steps to the goal line, front-flipping into the end zone to punctuate the 56-yard play. .
“We knew it was going to be hard all week,” LaFell (4 catches, 97 yards, 2 touchdowns) said of playing the Bills. “When you’re playing against a defense with a front seven like that . . . we knew it was going to be a 60-minute game.
“It feels good, but we know as a team we haven’t put our best foot out there yet. We haven’t played to the best of our abilities yet.”